A Beginner's Guide: Fly Fishing for Muskie
There has been a large increase in the number of fly fishers chasing muskies in recent years. They are an exciting fish to chase, so its no wonder more anglers want to catch one. Fly fishing for muskies includes some aspects that are new to many who fly fish. Like many subjects, there is probably more bad information than good available on the internet. I highly recommend Rick Kustich’s “Hunting Musky with a Fly” for anyone starting out or looking to improve their odds of landing a muskie on a fly. This article is meant to be a crash course in equipment and fish care. It won’t cover everything, but touch on some important things to know when starting out.
Rod and Lines
10, 11, and 12 weights with 400-500 grain lines are ideal. The rod weight is more important to the flies you will be casting that it will be in fish fighting. However, it is important to land muskies as quickly as possible. The best reels are ones that hold line, balance your rod and fit your price range. Muskies are not typically fought “on the reel”, so the drag is not important. I highly advise not trying to put the fish on the reel as its an easy way to lose one. Staying tight to a muskie is vital to landing it.
Flies are typically in the 8″-12″ range. Smaller and larger can and do work. Time of year and the fishery can dictate larger or smaller flies. Rough guideline…spring = small, summer = any size, fall/winter = big. Key word there is “rough” as its just a good starting point. DON’T OVERDRESS YOUR FLIES! This is one of the most common mistakes I see. Energy efficiency can really extend your time and focus on the water. Overdressed flies are harder to cast, and harder to retrieve. This can really add up over hours of fishing.
Avoid Heavy Gauge Hooks
Muskies have very boney mouths. A heavy gauge hook can be hard to bury. It is hard to find a 4/0+ hook that is too thin for muskie, so avoid those on the thicker side that are ideal for other species.
Sharpen Your Hooks
Always, always, always sharpen your hooks. No matter how sharp a hook is out of the package, it can be sharper. I will never fish a fly for muskie without sharpening it first. If you fish an area with rocks, it is good to check your hook points on a regular basis. A good hook sharpener is an investment you won’t regret. Renzetti offers two great options…the Lefty Kreh Dual Sharpening Stone and the Clouser’s Hook File.
Seeing a muskie following can make or break your day. They often trail behind or below the fly. Being able to see a fish follow, as well as structure in some fisheries, can be the difference between landing a muskie or not. Follows also offer a vital clue as to where the fish are holding. This important to know which locations to fish that day, and which ones to go back on.
I cannot overstress this enough. It is my personal opinion that fly anglers should always use wire as a bite guard. Muskies are not leader shy. Because they have a tendency to follow the fly, anglers assume the leader could be whats preventing the bite. Resist the urge to switch to a lighter bite leader because of the follows. Muskies can bite through any fluorocarbon under 120 lb. You will get much better action on 30-40 lb flexible wire than you will on fluoro that heavy. BITE OFFS ARE NOT PART OF THE GAME! You should never experience a bite off with proper equipment. Even if losing a fish of a lifetime isn’t motivation enough, why would you want to leave a large fly stuck in a fish’s mouth or throat? 7×7 strand flexible wire is my favorite. Both Rio and Scientific Angler offer good options.
Not overstressing a muskie plays a large roll in the survival after release. While muskies are not hard fighters for their size, without a net, they can easily take twice as long, or longer, to land. They are notorious for staying just our of reach at the boat. A big net helps land a muskie quickly and aids in recovery. By “big” I mean BIG. The fish should be able to stay straight in the net and submerged in the water. There are a number of good options available. The Stow-a-way nets are great for smaller vessels like rafts and drift boats. Don’t lift the fish out of the water or bring it into the boat with the net. The large net allows you to unhook the fish while still in the water, and get anything you need ready for a photo. Cradles are ok to transfer a fish to from the net if thats your preference for measuring and revival, but I wouldn’t use one to land them.
Forceps typically won’t cut it. Get yourself a pair of larger pliers for hook removal. Both you and the fish will be happier.
You should consider not only your safety, but the fish’s. In situations where you can get in the water with the fish, holding a muskie by the tail works fine. You can easily get the fish back in the water if you lose your grip. Muskies are long and strong. It doesn’t take much for them to shake free, especially for the inexperienced muskie angler. If you are in the boat or inexperienced holding muskie, you should consider holding it by the gill plate. It is the most secure way to hold them and avoid dropping them. Especially if its a large muskie. If is safe for both you and the fish if done correctly. Basic guidelines…avoid touching the gills and avoid getting your thumb in the fish’s mouth.
Allow the Fish to Recover
The warmer the water, the more time a muskie typically needs to revive. Hold the fish by the tail with its head submerged (point it into the current if in a river). DON’T MOVE THE FISH FORWARDS AND BACKWARDS. Simply hold it until you feel it start to kick, then let go. Watch to see if it swims down and doesn’t surface. If it does re-surface, repeat the process.
Avoid Warm Water
The general rule is 80 degrees. This is about the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. The less there is, the harder it is for the fish to recover after battle. Just because a muskie swims away does not mean it will survive. Delayed mortality goes up as the amount of dissolved oxygen goes down. 79 degrees and under, along with landing the fish quickly and handling it well, all aids in the recover.
I hope this short article was able to shed some light on what you need to chase muskie with a fly. They are a fish of highs and lows, often with many more lows, but the highs are what keep us coming back.